After learning that a man held at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex had suffered cardiac arrest and was on the brink of death, Correction Commissioner Louis Molina told his subordinates to "make sure we do what we can" to ensure that the man was "off the department's count," he wrote in an email obtained by The New York Times. Hours later, after Elmore Robert Pondexter, 59, was granted a “compassionate release” from detention, he was taken off life support and died at Bellevue Hospital. Because he had been freed, the department did not count his death as having occurred in its custody, issuing no news release and providing no notice to the city Board of Correction, a jails oversight panel. Molina does not have the authority to free people from custody on his own. How much weight his directive carried in the decision to release Pondexter was not clear. The involvement of the city’s top jail official appeared to show the lengths to which Molina was willing to go to keep the death figures down. Although other jail officials have not counted deaths that occurred after ailing detainees were freed, Molina issued his instruction while under pressure to show improvements on Rikers Island or risk a federal takeover of the city’s troubled jail system. “At first we were happy he died with dignity, and we knew he wouldn’t die a prisoner,” said Aquandra Morris, 43, one of Pondexter’s three children. “But, then I thought about it — something is not right. They are trying to relinquish their responsibility.” As a federal judge has weighed whether to appoint an outside official to oversee the jails, the number of deaths in the system has been an important metric. The department under Mayor Eric Adams has freed at least one other incarcerated person before he died — Antonio Bradley, 28, who tried to hang himself in June while unsupervised in a pen at the Bronx courthouse.
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